High Point attendees eye cautious optimism

HIGH POINT, N.C. – The High Point Market didn’t officially begin until today, which explains why so many furniture buyers and retailers were cutting deals all week.
Much like the markets in Tupelo, Las Vegas and elsewhere, the official days are ignored, and shopping starts early in the week.
And for the more than three dozen Mississippi furniture manufacturers exhibiting here – joining about 2,000 other companies – the more buyers, the better, not matter when they show up.
About 70,000 people are expected to attend the fall market. But unlike Tupelo, where the market is contained within a single-story, six-building campus covering about 1.5 million square feet, the High Point Market is spread over 188 buildings ranging from one-story to multi-story facilities covering nearly 12 million square feet.
Two months after many deemed a successful fall Tupelo Furniture Market, the players are gathered again in the “Home Furnishings Capital of the World.”
The consensus from some Mississippi manufacturers here? Business has improved, but sales are nowhere near where they were was before the recession.
And, economic uncertainty still has consumers unwilling to spend a lot of money.
“I think most people are still trying to find out what health insurance will cost and what will happen to the Bush tax cuts,” said Jerry Marlin of Tupelo-based Prime Designs. “Business is better than it has been. But housing is still in dire straits and I don’t see much relief on the way.”
But Marlin, like other exhibitors, think – and hope – furniture buyers and retailers are ready to refill their inventories after two years of an economic roller coaster.
“2008 was a disaster,” said Jim Sneed, CEO of Houlka-based Affordable Furniture. “Well, we made money, but it was a struggle every day. Last year was pretty good for us. This year, we had a strong tax season, it slowed down in the summer like it usually does, and we’ve seen a pickup.
“Are we out of the woods? No, I don’t think so. You’ve got to get consumers feeling good again. We need jobs. There’s still too much uncertainty.”
The recession certainly has affected the furniture markets, whether they’re in Tupelo, Vegas, High Point, Dallas or Atlanta.
“The economic downturn has had an effect on every major trade show in the world,” said Brian Casey, the president and CEO of the High Point Market Authority.
“While it has created a certain level of stress … the impact on our recent premarket has been just the opposite. We completed our best-attended premarket since its reorganization three years ago.”
Premarket, held about a month before each High Point Market, brings major buyers to several furniture exhibitors who offer previews of what they’ll show at the market.
Casey said High Point is in good shape while the economy rebounds. As the pre-eminent furniture market, High Point has strengthened its position by investing millions in facilities and infrastructure and has made great strides in making the buying experience better for attendees.
And while the number of attendees may have peaked a few years ago, plenty of order-writing is still taking place, he said.
“What we are seeing here in High Point is that the buying power is still very well represented as are the retail organizations,” he said. “What is happening is in some instances is that shorter stays are planned and some retailers are sending fewer representatives. On the other hand, we have seen a significant increase in designer participation and so, in the end, while numbers have been relatively flat, the business being conducted continues to be a very high-quality level.”
One company that’s seen plenty of high-quality business is Pontotoc-based Southern Motion, which recently began a plant expansion that will add at least 200 jobs in the next couple of years.
Having expanded its High Point showroom several times, Southern Motion now fills more than 20,000 square feet in a former sock factory.
But even with business vastly improved, company CEO Guy Lipscomb sees room for improvement.
“It’s still difficult,” he said. “In fact, I think business is more difficult now than it was last year. It just seems like the furniture consumer is more concerned about the economy than a year ago. And certainly a year ago it was not particularly good.”
And while Southern Motion’s business is up and the company has gained market share, Lipscomb said nobody is quite ready to say the worst is over when it comes to the economy.
“We certainly hope so, but there’s still that nagging feeling hanging around.”
Another company expanding and adding jobs is Fulton-based Max Home which was founded in 2003.
Marty Silver, one of five partners in the company, echoes the feeling of industry peers.
“It’s still challenging times,” he said. “It’s getting better, gradually. But it’s hard to tell sometimes. But we’re still planning for success, no matter what the economic conditions are.”
But there is some good news. On Tuesday, a survey showed consumer confidence rising 2.4 percent from September to October, according to Investor’s Business Daily and TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence. Those surveyed also said they were more upbeat about their finances in the next six months.
That is exactly what the furniture industry wants to hear.

Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal